When Pilate confronts Jesus, he asks, “do you not know that I have the power to crucify You or release You?” To which Jesus replies, “you would have no power at all unless it had been granted from above. Therefore, the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.”
See, Pilate was not blameless in his execution of Jesus. The fact alone that he had been given authority means that it had been given from above. Paul tells us, “Let every soul be subject to governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God;” a sentiment echoed by Peter, who teaches us to “submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake.” Thus Pilate, who had received this authority from God, shares in the sin of condemning Jesus.
However, it should be noticed the second part of Jesus’ statement as well. Pilate had no knowledge of Christ, neither knowledge of the Scriptures. It was rather he who knew of Jesus, he who had studied the Scripture and knew the prophecies about the coming Messiah, and yet, knowing these things, still delivered Him to be executed.
This leads to the question, when we are ignorant of Jesus, are we still held accountable for our sins? And the answer that we plainly see here is yes, we are. But, once we come to a knowledge of Him and His commandments, and still continue in our sin; we are held to a far greater accountability. Peter teaches us that “For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them.” (2 Peter 2:20-21), and Paul warns us, “it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.” (Hebrews 6:4-6).
A man who is raised in an atheistic society, who has no knowledge whatsoever of Jesus, of His laws and commands, would be based on his actions based on his knowledge. St Paul again explains this, stating that “when the Gentiles, who do not have the Law, do by nature the things of the Law, these, having not the Law, become a law unto themselves.” Before we ever know anything about the Law of God, the commands of Christ, He will judge us based on things that are intrinsic to our nature; the law written on our very hearts. Love, compassion, mercy, almsgiving; these actions are written on our conscience, and when we consent accordingly, in absentia of the knowledge of Christ, it is for these qualities that we are judged. Pilate is held guilty of his actions not because he had gone against the Law as it was written in the Torah, but rather because he knew this Man to be innocent, and yet, even with that knowledge, still consented to his execution. However, what Paul, Peter, Jesus Himself warn us of is that once we come to the knowledge of Christ, our excuses are for naught. Our adherence to the Law becomes a far greater demand, to abide in the ways of the Lord.
So, would this mean that we are better off having never heard of the commands of the Lord? God forbid! We need to search our hearts and determine the meaning of “salvation” to us. What do we seek from our Christian walk? If all salvation means to us is that we come to a far better end than the “bad people,” then perhaps it would be better to have never learned these things. However, it is through knowledge of God and our relationship with Him that we are able to experience the true freedom that comes from our salvation. It is through His grace alone that we are able to overcome the bonds of iniquity that hold us captive to our sin. It is only through His grace that we can obtain the spiritual maturity that allows us to cast off the sins which keep us captive, and experience the true freedom that comes from a growing relationship with Christ. It is that alone which will allow us to participate in His life, growing more and more like Him, in preparation for the final judgment. And, with that growing relationship comes also a growing opportunity for forgiveness. One who has no relationship with Christ will still be accountable for every sin that they commit, they have never been washed of their sins; whereas those in Christ have been washed and can constantly be made anew through repentance and confession.
May we all recognize this. We who have knowledge of our Lord will be held much more accountable than one who has never tasted this grace of God; and yet, in tasting it, we understand that we can be freed from the sins which enslaved us. May we all constantly be washed through repentance and confession; seeking the holiness which is ours only through the grace of our Lord Jesus. May we constantly strive for this sinless perfection, and each time we fail, take a deep breath, pray “Lord have mercy,” and begin anew. May we understand that the purpose of our Christian walk is far more than “earning” a ticket into heaven, it is to be fully freed from the bondage of our sins on earth, to be reconciled more and more into the image of Christ. It is to experience the true freedom, the true joy, the true contentment, that comes only through our growing relationship with Christ in this life. It is understanding that Christ came to earth, not to forgive us of our sins, but to save us from their power over us.
Christ is in our midst.